Written by: Shawn Funk
One of the goals of environmentalism is to harmonize civilization with the natural environment. Through sustainable practices, it is thought that the degradation of our environment can be brought under control and even reversed. Is this wishful thinking? I think so. I believe there is an inherent contradiction between civilization and nature, for one must be destroyed to make way for the other. Indeed, they cannot occupy the same place simultaneously. Economic growth and environmental degradation go hand in hand; naturally, first-world countries are the biggest polluters and energy users. Where there was a desert, now a concrete villa. Where there was forest, now a farmer’s field. Where there was beautiful riverside scenery, now a hydroelectric dam. Where there was a bear, now a rug, indeed, “[e]very human colonization of a land mass formerly lacking humans . . . has been followed by a wave of extinction” (Diamond, 2005).
The most significant contributor to environmental degradation today is the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels underpin our entire civilization, and our reliance on them will only increase as undeveloped countries industrialize their economies, and first-world energy demand rises. Canada’s energy use is among the highest in the world.
Consequently, we are also among the biggest polluters in the world. While we have attempted global initiatives to reduce emissions, the Kyoto protocol in 2002 and the Paris agreement in 2015, these agreements have had little effect on our emissions. Under the Kyoto Protocol, Canada was obligated to reduce their emissions “to 6 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. By 2009 emissions were 17 percent above the 1990 levels” (Ljunggren, & Palmer, 2011). This big of a miss suggests that either we signed this agreement as a symbolic act, or we have seriously underestimated our problem. In 2011, Prime Minister Peter Kent withdrew Canada from the Kyoto protocol citing the failure to convince major emitters like the U.S., China, and India to accept its commitments as a major reason for the withdraw (2011). But that’s not all. According to Mr. Kent, failure to withdraw would have resulted in “enormous financial penalties under the terms of the treaty” to compensate for missing the emission commitment (2011). By withdrawing from the treaty, Canada avoided any penalties associated with missing our climate targets. That doesn’t sound like a binding agreement.
Canada’s ratification of the Paris agreement in 2015 heralds another era of climate action, but it is still very early to determine its efficacy. All parties to the agreement must submit a plan called the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) every five years, starting in 2024. These reports outline the steps taken to reach the desired climate goal, as well as the progress they have made toward that goal, holding members to account to their climate pledges. The agreement itself is ambitious. It aims at limiting the global temperature increase “to well below, preferably to 1.5, degrees Celsius” to “achieve a climate neutral world by mid-century” (UNFCCC, n.d.). 193 countries have signed on accounting for well over 90 percent of the global emissions but will the “nationally determined” pledges of these countries go far enough to meet the aggressive targets?
A new report released last month from UN Climate Change suggests our efforts are insufficient; “[t]he combined pledges of 193 Parties under the Paris Agreement could put the world on track for around 2.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century” (UNCCC, 2022). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revealed earlier this year that “GHG emissions need to be cut 43% by 2030” (UNFCC, 2022). However, projections suggests that with our current pledges, our emissions will increase by 10.6 percent (UNFCC, 2022). These discrepancies indicate how out of touch we are with reality, raising the question. How realistic are our climate goals?
Smil argues that ambitious climate plans and decarbonization proposals miss the scope of our problem. The inputs of our civilization, concrete, steel, ammonia, and plastic, what Smil calls ‘the four pillars of our civilization’, require vast amounts of energy that humans cannot easily substitute away from fossil fuels (Smil, 2022). The implication is that our decarbonizing project will be slow. For example, Germany has done more than any other country in the last 20 years to promote clean and renewable energies, yet they still derive 78 percent of their total energy use from fossil fuels, down from 84 percent two decades ago (Smil, 2022). On a global scale, we currently derive 84 percent of our total energy use from fossil fuels, down from 87 percent at the beginning of the century (Smil, 2022).
Climate scientists are saying that time is what we do not have. The IPCC states that “[c]limate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all” (IPCC, 2022). Others warn that the failure to change our patterns of consumption right now will lead to an unacceptable rise in the Earth’s mean temperature past 1.5 degrees C, increasing the frequency of extreme weather events, sea-level rise, floods, wildfires, drought, extreme heat, and cold (Reed, 2016). It is believed that such weather events will make some parts of the planet uninhabitable for people, severely limiting our capacity to maintain our status quo (Connors, 2020). It seems reasonable to conclude that the limits of our civilization are framed by nature. Thus, if our runaway energy consumption continues, it will not be the planet that needs saving; it will be us. Just another extinction event for planet Earth, no biggie.
These conclusions hardly inspire hope for the future. If each is right, it seems logical to infer that our civilization may be heading for a cliff. While this seems incredible, would it be a stretch to assume that our society will end up like all great civilizations of the past that, over time, stretched themselves to their material limits and disintegrated? Our piss poor record of conserving resources and living sustainably goes back thousands of years. Stone-age hunters overhunted their lands, resulting in the mass extinction of megafauna across the globe (Wright, 2004). Ancient farmers in Sumer cleared forests and degraded their soils until there was no nutrients left and floods covered their land (Wright, 2004). Polynesians on Easter Island cut down every single tree to satisfy their urge to carve and transport the giant Moai statues (Diamond, 2005). Native Americans drove entire buffalo herds off cliffs and hunted them to near extinction (Wright, 2004). None of these practices are sustainable, and we are doing something similar right now on a global scale.
How do we maintain our ever-growing civilization while remaining conscious of our environmental footprint? That is, how do we do more with less? But the problem is much deeper than that. Perhaps the question should be, how do we get to ‘less’ from an economy that always wants more? Ahh, the great irony. Our system seems utterly opposed to the ideas of conservation and limits. This is the free market, baby. Let ‘er rip! Conspicuous consumption, planned obsolescence, and race to the bottom characterize our regime. Thus, we will not find our solution in any government institution or corporate jingle. Imagine an advertisement that tells you to buy less of a product or a politician that says he will aim for negative growth in the coming years. We are sold the myth of progress which implies that things will get better as the years go by. How can we say that giving up our comforts is progress? Instead of driving your car, you will now ride your bike. Say goodbye to your new cell phone. No new clothes this year or next. The shoes can wait as well. Tim’s anyone? Make your coffee at home. Cold? Put on an old sweater. What about a nice meal at a restaurant? I don’t know; restaurants produce a lot of food waste. Well, shit, being environmentally friendly kind of sucks. Our problem is we want to save the environment while we stuff our faces with Big Macs. Like children, we want to eat our cake too.
Getting to ‘less’ might be more of a mental game than anything. If we cannot rely on government or business, we will have to take matters into our own hands, but who has the will power to shrug off their happiness. Yes, consuming makes us happy, and we sing praises to our corporate overlords everyday in the products we buy. Are we willing to sacrifice our wants? It seems unlikely. Take a company like Skip the Dishes, their entire marketing premise is promoting laziness, and it’s booming. Amazon allows you to mindlessly scroll through millions of useless products you will never need, also booming. Car manufacturers are building bigger and heavier vehicles year over year. I don’t need a 5000lb behemoth to carry around my 190lb frame, but I would look pretty cool doing it. The reason these companies exist is because people want these things. The fact that we are trending towards these kinds of products suggests that we are not willing to give up expedience, choice, or luxury. We will not sacrifice our quality of life. Our addiction to this kind of life is too strong.
I can already hear some of you saying, “so we should do nothing then?” in the brattiest condescending voice I can dream of. No, that is not what I am saying. I am saying we are doing nothing right now, and we will continue doing nothing. Think about it, when was the last time we sacrificed our pleasure, wants, and desires for the sake of the environment? Have you ever thought maybe I shouldn’t eat this steak because the production of meat is energy-intensive, or perhaps I shouldn’t Amazon these throw-away shirts from China that probably won’t fit anyway, or maybe I will walk to the store instead of driving, or the countless other things that we do every day that ruin our environment? The answer is no; these behaviours in a way define our culture. We drive, we eat steak, and we like buying stuff from China. Our habits of consumption will not change. We will continue to devour the planet until the planet hits reset and begins to devour us!
Our environmental plan always waits for someone else to impose limitations, like the government, like business. I have said before, they will not offer any solutions because above all economic growth is their outlook. It might be true that as individuals we might change our consumption habits which could have a significant effect on production but submitting to a future of self-imposed frugality would be a depressing admission for the land of perpetual progress. Instead, we will drink frappuccinos from Starbucks, share environmental slogans on Facebook, and pat each other on the back as we watch the world come to an end in slow motion. Our civilization will not accept limits, but our planet will impose them.
Conners, D. (2020) “Will large parts of Earth be too hot for people in 50 years?” EarthSky. https://earthsky.org/earth/global-warming-areas-of-earth-too-hot-for-people/
Diamond, Jared. (2005). Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. London: Penguin Group.
Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change (2022) Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. IPCC. https://report.ipcc.ch/ar6wg2/pdf/IPCC_AR6_WGII_FinalDraft_FullReport.pdf
Ljunggren, D. & Palmer, R. (2011) “Canada to pull out of Kyoto protocol.” Financial Post. https://financialpost.com/uncategorized/canada-to-pull-out-of-kyoto-protocol?r
Reed, C. (2016) “Climate catastrophe? A half a degree warming could make the difference.” Science. https://www.science.org/content/article/climate-catastrophe-half-degree-warming-could-make-difference
Smil, Vaclav. (2022). How the World Really Works. New York: Viking.
United Nations Climate Change. (2022) “Climate Plans Remain Insufficient: More Ambitious Action Needed Now”. https://unfccc.int/news/climate-plans-remain-insufficient-more-ambitious-action-needed-now
United Nations Climate Change. (n.d.) “The Paris Agreement. What is the Paris Agreement.” https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement
Wright, Ronald. (2004). A Short History of Progress. Toronto: House of Anansi Press.